The far-east is resplendent in mythology and fantastical stories so it's odd that is very rarely utilised as inspiration for RPGs. The last game that bore any similarity to an RPG with Eastern flavouring was the exorable Blade & Sword. Now the leading western developer of RPGs has crafted their new game from the arcane mystery that typifies tales from the Far East. As well as searching pastures new for their storyline BioWare have broken with RPG convention and made the combat a wholly real-time affair. Yet for all its braveness in design, is Jade Empire actually going to appeal to BioWare's core audience?
In a bold move against the standards of the genre, Jade Empire does not begin with the player's character in a prison or waking up from a long coma suffering with amnesia. The game begins at Master Li's training school, your home since before you can remember, and gently introduces the player to the various individuals that live at the school and its surrounding village. The first few hours are spent learning the game's controls and interface while absorbing as much background on the gameworld as you can handle. Sure enough though, some bad people come along and things kick off in a viciously spectacular fashion. BioWare are to be applauded for this different approach, even if it's not long before things revert to RPG type as you come to learn that you are a chosen one whose destiny it is to save the world from the clutches of an evil tyrant and his equally unpleasant henchman. The story that unfolds in Jade Empire tends to conform to the standards a little too much for my liking, especially after such a refreshing start. I've played this kind of character, the loner with an unusual provenance and an even more fantastic destiny, so many times that I'd actually be more interested in playing a dustman called Sid as he goes about his day, tries to pay his bills on time and pull the barmaid down at his local pub. RPG developers have been getting away with rehashing the same story types for a quarter of a century now, and while it may be a bit unfair on Jade Empire, I've had enough. A little more originality in future please.
Still, while it's the same familiar story archetype rolled out puffing and wheezing once more, BioWare do tend to know how to present their stories very well. So when things are still obviously in need of some more work they are likely to be more noticeable than if they came form another development team. For example, the expositional cutscenes which are such an obligatory part of modern RPGs are a hit and miss affair. Your ability to skip them is apparently determined at random, with some short scenes by-passable while other meandering monologues are mandatory, even if you've seen them a couple of times already. While the quality of the images is very good, they are often rather boring to watch. The camera is usually static and is used about as creatively as a hammer on a nail. The conversations in the game are practically screaming out for some more animations. As there's so much talking in this game that the prospect of watching yet another pair of near-motionless characters waffle away about the history of the Jade Empire and their part in the story is enough to make Coronation Street seem a slightly more appealing alternative. The camera never moves anywhere and is never used to accentuate the action or draw the player's attention to details in the background. That last is probably because there isn't that much in the way of detail in the backgrounds. Except for the main areas of the Imperial City, the world of the Jade Empire seems like a sterile place. Maybe that's a result of the sanitation required after the plague that seems to have wiped out most of its citizens. Hopefully one day an RPG developer will not only detach the camera from a fixed point and use it to explore the richness of the gameworld but they will also populate their worlds to look a little fuller than a Marie Celeste's survivor's reunion.
While the story's attempts to forge a new path are ultimately doomed to failure thanks to its adhesion to an overly familiar archetype, the gameplay is markedly different from any other RPG I've come across. Jade Empire is billed as an action RPG and it mostly manages to live up to this definition. Rather then passively watching animations as the CPU determines the outcome of combat the player's skill with the controller determines the outcomes of Jade Empire's battles. No more pausing the action to line up a series of attack moves or spells, every fighting move is carried out under the player's direct control. In effect this leaves us with a curious hybrid between a fighting game and a typical RPG. Kicks and punches along with ranged attacks and buffs are all just a button press away. At first it's a wonderfully liberating experience to be in actual control over your character.
The combat is initially more involving than any I've experienced in an RPG. There's a lot of enjoyment to be had from the knowledge that it is your reactions and skill with the control pad that will lead to your enemies defeat, rather than the random outcome of two tables of numbers being flung at each other deep in the belly of your console's digital brain. Not only is it more thrilling but it also helps to create a stronger bond between the player and their virtual representation. The feeling of direct control is a most engaging experience although by necessity this system strips away much of the character construction and powers that players expect from an RPG. For example, there are hardly any weapons to collect, nor is there any armour or rings and trinkets. Apart from the gems the most prevalent items in the game are new fighting styles. These can be taught by NPCs or learned from items found at specific points in the adventure. There are lots of different styles to choose from yet although they are broken down into four separate styles, (Martial, Support, Magic and Weapon) as you need to power up styles for them to be truly effective the scope for testing out the different schools is pretty restricted. This results in a tendency to stick with certain styles throughout much of the game. This reliance on a small number of techniques from an admirably large selection is mirrored in the implementation of these styles during actual combat. Maybe it was just me being lazy, but rather than pick different styles all the time using the simple d-pad selection system I tended to stick to one offensive style and mash the red and blue buttons ad infinitum. BioWare have the beginnings of an interesting hybrid system here, but the cuts into the RPG core are too severe and leave players with an unhappy medium between a chronically simplified beat-em up and character building options that wouldn't confuse the majority of FPS die-hards.
Jade Empire also ushers in a new approach to character development. So rather than the usual strength, intelligence and so on, players have three primary attributes which then work together to determine two secondary attributes. As well as the level bonuses there are a huge number of gems in the game which will boost all the different stats. As the game progresses, you are able to carry more and more of these gems, which is handy as they are by far and way the most frequent loot found in the game. There's seemingly a gem for every occasion, so with the right combinations you can construct a character that may well be able to fling out the special moves with gay abandon but is a weakling when it comes to taking hits. The same system also affects the conversations in the game. For example, with the right gems and bonuses you can become someone who can intimidate even the toughest NPC into divulging all his life secrets, or you can create a sweet person whose overriding sense of goodness and justice compels people to aid you in your quest. Like the KOTOR games Jade Empire employs a light side/dark side device, although this time good actions will lead you down the path of the Open Palm whereas slaughtering everyone you meet will take you down the way of the Closed Fist. Some fighting styles are restricted to the different alignments and conversations are also affected by whether you have flowers in your hair or human ears around your neck. It's an interesting concept which has been little developed since it first appeared so players are left with little scope for truly defining their character as they see fit. BioWare have been working in the branching conversation trees since Baldur's Gate, and while the system is highly toned and results in more divergent responses than before, the formula is over-used and has become repetitive. Saying that, the quality of the writing is excellent and the characterisations surpass most alternatives in the video game world. There's a lot of genuine humour that lifts the Jade Empire above most of its peers and there are occasions when you feel that the game is making some interesting philosophical points. The performances from the voice actors are also outstanding, with very few duff pieces of work infiltrating the solid line-up that BioWare has assembled. Graphically, sonically and literally Jade Empire is an impressive piece of work.
As a result, I found myself tiring of Jade Empire just at the point where I should have been sucked into the spiralling storyline. And its not that I was uninterested to see how things would pan out and what the eventual fate of my character and his travelling companions would be. Rather, I was becoming increasingly bored with the method by which I would arrive at these final answers. Levelling up was still an enjoyable experience and the combat never became utterly soul-destroyingly dull. Instead a sense of tedium was joined by a distinct sense that something was missing. I finally realised what it was. I didn't feel like the main character belonged to me. Apart from choosing which secondary characteristics to boost with gems, and the greater involvement in the fighting, there was no other way of stamping my identity on the character. Sure, the choices I made affected the outcome of the game, but as they continue to offer very little in the way of paths that were not utterly evil or overwhelmingly good, the conversations and actions that I took broke down to little more then me selecting which of two or three mildly diverging branches that the developers had built that I would travel down. I felt trapped by their design decisions and more of a spectator to the proceedings than I would like from an RPG. Jade Empire was an experience very much like playing an old favourite converted for your mobile phone. The control system has been changed, the options watered down and no matter how impressive it all looks and sounds there's just not enough 'play' to command the interest.
From reading this review you may think that I didn't enjoy Jade Empire. This isn't true; I did have plenty of fun and would recommend it to fans of Eastern mythology and those who like a big story in their beat-em up games. There are some structural flaws, most noticeably terrible loading times, yet on the whole Jade Empire is a solidly constructed game. But for me, as a long time RPG fan and proud owner of every BioWare title, the thrill has gone. I fear this great Canadian company is in danger of becoming the EA sports of RPGs. With a core design template that has changed little over the decades and 3D graphics that still look lifeless even when they are beautiful, BioWare also need to approach the combat situation from a totally fresh perspective. They are to be applauded for at least having the guts to try, but on evidence of Jade Empire, KOTOR and NWN, they desperately need to stop simplifying things and allow players the freedom and tools to make wonderful adventuring a phrase once again synonymous with BioWare. Struggling against the competing forces of gamers, the wider market and changing technological platforms, BioWare have managed to create some exciting and enjoyable games. And while it's not the unqualified success that many initially thought, Jade Empire does show that the company does have the talent to once again forge new RPGs that are essential purchases.